Last updated:2023-09-18
Senior Labour figures turn out in force for legal aid review launch
Speaking at the launch of Labour’s legal aid review last month, the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, said he believes ‘very strongly in legal aid’ and it is ‘the poor and vulnerable who are paying the price of legal aid cuts’. He also told the meeting that he believes access to justice is ‘a fundamental human right’.
It was clear from the line-up of speakers that Labour sees the review as an important initiative. As well as the party leader, the meeting heard from John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, who argued that the legal aid cuts are ‘part of a systematic erosion of the welfare state’ by the government. McDonnell also accepted that reductions to legal aid ‘at the end of the day do not save much money but end up costing more’ due to knock-on costs to other arms of the state.
Shadow lord chancellor Charlie Falconer told the meeting that ‘at every level we hear about a collapsing justice system’. Falconer, a former lord chancellor under Tony Blair, said he hopes the review will lead to a ‘wide consensus among lawyers and beyond of what the minimum standards of access to justice and advice should be’.
Many speakers, including Nicola Mackintosh, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, welcomed the review. In her comments, Mackintosh emphasised the impact of the changes to legal aid on the type of vulnerable clients she acts for, including care home residents desperate for advice who are ‘just above the means test for legal aid’.
Responding to comments at the launch about the importance of linking legal aid to welfare reform and the fight against poverty, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC warned not to let legal aid ‘get walled into the welfare argument’, as it is ‘about defending the twin pillars of democracy and justice’.
Former justice minister Lord Bach is to head the review. Speaking to Legal Action, he said: ‘Corbyn is the first leader of a major political party to really get legal aid.’ According to Bach, given the crisis in legal aid, Labour sees the review as the ‘right thing to do’ and that it is ‘important to the country that we get a legal aid system that provides greater access to justice’. He hopes the first draft of a report on the review will be ready for April next year with the final version to be presented to the Labour party conference, which will take place in Liverpool the following September.
Bach will be assisted by Karl Turner, shadow solicitor general, who said he would be concentrating on criminal legal aid and that he had three or four ‘big hitters’ from the world of criminal legal aid already lined up to take part. According to Bach, around eight to 10 lawyers and other specialists will form the review team and their names will be ‘announced soon’.